I had intended to offer Fred’s figs as dessert at a picnic my friend Erica and I planned, so yesterday afternoon I headed into the garden, wandering past the zucchini, corn, and tomatoes, pausing periodically to check on the ripeness of various fruits and veggies, acknowledging the spent raspberries and close-to-finished potatoes to my left, anticipating the sweet perfection of Fred’s Figs. The figs looked sound as I approached the tree, but I discovered upon gently grasping a fig that while I had been away from the garden for a few days Fred’s fig tree has been taken over by starlings and yellow jackets and a couple of hummingbirds. All of the enormous, sexy, ripe figs had been poked with little holes (hummingbirds), eaten from the inside-out (yellow jackets) or almost completely consumed and left like deflated balloons dangling from their stems (starlings). Fig pulp dripped onto my head and blouse, yellow-jackets buzzed in my ears, and I realized that there would be no figs for dessert. I was already running late for the picnic, so I didn’t even have time to change out of my stained blouse, nor fix my bangs, which were stiff and sticky from the pulp.
The only consolation for my disappointment was the knowledge that the last basketful of glorious ripe figs was quite appropriately consumed by a group of World War Two veterans. As Izzy and I were leaving town for the weekend, we offered to Joe the figs that I’d just picked, thinking he could share them with his colleagues at the Portland V.A. Medical Center (ripe figs don’t travel well!). His colleagues loved Fred’s figs, and so did his wizened old vets. I love thinking about how Fred was a World War Two vet – perhaps he even served with some of Joe’s clients! Maybe they were in the same unit that liberated one of the concentration camps? – and that all these years later, after his death, Fred’s figs were being gobbled by his contemporaries.
Today, the day I write part two of “Fred’s Figs,” was the very day this month when I offer a collaborative inquiry session at Mary’s Woods continuing care retirement center. I’ve been offering a monthly session since this past January, and will do so for the rest of this year. The custom is for me to read a short piece of writing, usually something I’ve written or am in the process of writing, and then we spend the remainder of our time surfacing themes, making connections between what was read and our own experiences, reminiscing about the past, and talking about our present lives, too. So, today I read “Fred’s Figs: A Legacy Tale, part one.”
After a short span of silence after I read the little essay, the group participants offered many thoughtful, even surprising insights and stories from their own lives. One gentleman, P., sighed, paused, and then said, “I think you vividly illustrate the web of life, and how it crosses generations. I like the feel of your essay.” His wife, D., remarked: “When people have died, they live on in us – in our memories and the stories we tell. You and your daughter are so lucky that you had Fred in your lives.” Another woman, H., remembered how as a young girl she met her lifelong best friend because of a cherry tree, the kind that grows the bright red little sour cherries best for pies. The cherry tree grew in the yard of her friend’s family’s home, and H. and her best friend started out as enemies – the future friend had caught H. stealing cherries from the tree! Then P. shared another story having to do with a dilapidated row-house in 1960s inner-city Philadelphia. He reminisced about renovating the row-house and living happily with his family for many years in the middle of an ethically and economically diverse neighborhood. The highlight of the story was his mention of the plate of ripe figs offered by a local progressive politician supposedly as a housewarming gift; from there after, P. and his wife referred to figs as “political figs.”
The group went on to talk about gardening, of the gardens we’ve known, the gardens we tended now, as well as the merits of letting plants do what they want, letting the garden exist in some indeterminate zone between absolutely wild and overly designed. And we connected this strong, shared sensibility about our roles as human stewards of micro-agriculture to a more expansive, aspirational commitment to letting other creatures become and be who they want to be, acknowledging the delicate balance to be sussed and cultivated between providing structure on the one hand, and freedom on the other, for those who are under our care, whether children, frail elders, companion animals, neighbors, colleagues, or vulnerable members of the community.
Suddenly, and jarringly, though not surprisingly, one of the collaborative inquiry participants asked me to tell more of Fred: Who he had been over his almost nine decades of life on earth, and how it was that we came to be such true friends. I told what I could in the short time I had to tell it, and they made me promise to continue writing about Fred and to bring what I write to them for their consideration. I promised to do so as my elder friends prepared themselves to leave me and move on to the next event in their hectic schedules as “retirees.”
After I returned home from Mary’s Woods, Fred’s son Peter stopped by to say hello, check in, and offer me some green beans from Fred’s garden. He also brought some figs—smaller, harder, and less sexy than the figs from last week that the WW2 vets gobbled. He has it in mind that we must fight a battle to save the rest of the figs from the humming birds, yellow jackets, and starlings. As well, he says he’s going to make some fig jam this weekend. I told him about my harrowing experience in the fig tree yesterday, in vivid detail, of course, and then we reminisced about our past experiences with yellow jackets – he shared a story from his boyhood about how he and his friend were pursued through our neighborhood by a swarm of hornets; I shared about being stung multiple times on my head while riding a horse in the back-country and how I had to dunk my head in a snow-melt mountain river and sleep off the venom-hangover in a bivouac. We laughed and commiserated, and then turned our conversation back to Fred’s figs. We wondered if there was still a chance for the unripe, hard little figs to ripen, and we acknowledged that had we remembered to put foil strips on the tree branches and enlist the scarecrow in security detail, we’d probably still be enjoying the best of Fred’s figs.
We made some provisional plans for next year’s growing season and turned our attention to re-sowing the lettuce—we could probably get another two months of lettuce from the garden, especially if we have an Indian summer.